How should we grade coaches? Unlike players, their impact is a bit more nebulous. They don’t actually step on the court and get buckets, as Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said after a collapse in the fourth against the Lakers this past season. “I’m not the savior here. I’m not playing. I’m watching, just like you guys.” So how do we assess year one of Darvin Ham’s tenure as the Lakers’ 28th head coach?
Let’s start from the beginning.
Initially, Ham focused on discussing defense and modernizing the Lakers’ offense transitioning to a four-out-one-in motion offense. “Well it’s how can they compete together,” Ham said during his introductory press conference. “You know what I’m saying. It starts on the defensive end and then from there, we’re going to build back towards the offense. I think the type of spacing a four-out-one in style which I’m going to implement, is going to help all parties.”
So how did the Lakers fare on their execution of Ham’s vision? Ultimately it was a mixed bag. The Lakers’ defensive was serviceable in 2022/23, ending the year with a defensive rating of 113.2, good for 14th in the league. The four-out-one-in offense ended up becoming a lot more of a five-out offense which we broke down in the article here.
This season is challenging to dissect as it’s a tale of two seasons—the one happening with Russell Westbrook and the one happening without.
Darvin Ham with praise for Russell Westbrook and the “unbelievable sacrifice” he made with the Lakers this season: pic.twitter.com/oQaKerOEbg— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) February 10, 2023
Dealing with Russ being on the team was a topic of conversation all off-season. It was reported as one of the main questions the Lakers organization was asking to every head coach candidate. How will you utilize Russ?
From the beginning, Ham emphasized how important Russell Westbrook could be, and how his buy-in would be to the Lakers’ success. Russ was present at Ham’s presser and seemed on board with whatever Ham had in mind. Talking on the Dan Patrick Show, Ham explained how Russ would fit. “Sometimes he’s gonna be off the ball slashing. Sometimes he’s gonna play in the dunker. Sometimes he’s gonna be initiating things. He may post up a little bit. He may be a screener in pick and roll. So, being able to diversify his plan of attack where he’s not just rushing the ball up the court facing three defenders every time.”
And to Ham and Russ’ credit. They did the best they could and turned lemons into lemonade. Russ did all of these things and while it didn’t result in many wins, it was an improvement from the previous season. Now was it worth the 47.1 million dollars Russ was being paid? No, but with a good trade option unavailable, there was nothing to do but bide time and be patient.
During that time, the Lakers were atrocious. They started 2-10, and all signs indicated that the season was — for all intents and purposes — over. The team had a 0.3% chance of making the playoffs, shot poorly from three, and what was worse is even the Lakers community wasn’t shouting out rotation issues or offering solutions. It felt as though things were what they were, and there was nothing any coach or player on the team could do to improve the situation. The Lakers just weren’t good enough as constructed to win.
Trade Deadline Turning Point
Lakers’ Anthony Davis on the trade deadline moves pic.twitter.com/SRywpzDVGN— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) April 10, 2023
Then Rob Pelinka made the moves that turned the season around. The Lakers acquired Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba, D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Davon Reed. A complete overhaul of the roster. The result? Ham was able to cook, and the Lakers went 14-8 post-trade deadline to secure a play-in spot and give themselves a shot at postseason play.
From there, the Lakers went on a Cinderella-type run, and Ham pushed all the right buttons. They beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in the play-in thanks to the heroics of Dennis Schröder, a player Lakers Nation often bemoaned for getting too much play and trust from Ham. Then they defeated the number two-seed Memphis Grizzlies in a series where Ham tightened the rotation by keeping Troy Brown Jr. and Beasley on the bench. And ultimately, they punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals after they defeated the defending champs, the Golden State Warriors in six games. Ham made the bold move in this series to play Lonnie Walker IV, a player who was getting DNP’s all playoffs, a lot in Game 4 — and the result was a 15-point fourth quarter from Walker IV, which gave the Lakers a commanding 3-1, series lead and helped seal the Warriors fate.
In the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers finally met their match and were swept against the soon-to-be-champs, the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps Ham took too long to bench D’Angelo Russell. Maybe he should’ve tried to use Wenyen Gabriel and have some more size. Maybe Tristan Thompson’s minutes during the final quarters of the season weren’t the answer. Either way, Ham, the Lakers and the league for that matter couldn’t figure out a way to stop Denver, and the Nuggets ended up being the team to hoist up the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
So how did Ham due in year one? I think he did well overall. He handled the Russell Westbrook situation as best as one could, his trust of players like Schröder paid dividends in the postseason, and the only team they lost to in a series were the eventual champs. We can nitpick rotations and depth chart situations, but ultimately it seems like he took this team just as far as it could have ever gone. Maybe an adjustment or two gives them one or two games against the Nuggets, but that’s about all I think this iteration of the Lakers could’ve mustered against that opponent.
Next season will be big for Ham. No more “It’s his first year, give him time” energy. This is year two, and if LeBron James plays again, it may be his last in purple and gold. Ham has a huge responsibility of not wasting the final season with such an elite talent and how he navigates this could define his career and his longevity as the Lakers head coach. Year one resulted in a Western Conference appearance; Lakers Nation hopes year two results in banner number 18.